Monday, September 25, 2017

RPG Talk: Persona 5

In which I talk (write) about RPGs from a storytelling perspective...

Platform: PS4 (also PS3)
Release: 2017

Persona 5 is my one sprawling JRPG for the year. There aren't many where I can go 100+ hours anymore, and even if I cut out some of the side stuff I was doing, How Long to Beat places the average main story only playthrough at 95 hours. Even by JRPG standards that's incredibly long, so what's taking up all that space?

I know this game is less than a year old at this point, so be aware there are late game spoilers below!

The story is structured to take place over eight elaborate heists that involve invading a Palace, a sort of mental construct that appears in the minds of those whose desires have been distorted. The Phantom Thieves steal the Palace treasures that represent the source of those distorted desires and thus return the target to the more compassionate human being they were before their desires took over their lives.

The bulk of the game takes place from April to December and with few exceptions, the player plays through each day on the calendar. The heists are spread out so there's typically a month or so in between each of them.

The payoff is that each Palace is a major event and they're so large that they're best broken up over multiple play sessions (or plan for your whole afternoon or evening to be spent clearing one). Seriously, a couple of them are so long that it might take five or six hours to push through. The cruise ship alone makes me wonder if I'll ever play this again. And each Palace prior to the penultimate dungeon brings a new party member, and as a result attempts to advance the story around them.

But the pacing suffers because of it. While new members are constantly joining it feels like the end is a far-off intangible thing. I remember being at the 70 hour mark and still wondering how much more I had to go, whereas with most other RPGs, I'd be done or tying off my last few side quests by now.

Both Persona 3 and 4 have all their playable characters in the party by September. In contrast, Akechi doesn't join until October, with his story dungeon taking place as late as early November depending on how much the player pushes the deadline, at which point it feels very late to be getting used to any new party members.

Akechi is introduced a lot earlier than when he joins, so he's not an unfamiliar face when it happens, but by the time he does it completely looks like final dungeon territory. I felt I barely had an opportunity to settle Akechi into my team dynamics (which turned out to not be a great idea) before it was confrontation time.

Though I realize there needs to be room to showcase all the characters from a main storyline perspective, there didn't need to be eight Palaces. Even allowing that each of the Palaces is thematically based on one of the Seven Deadly Sins, the designs double up on one, since they split Pride and Vanity into two different dungeons.

The thing is, the game settles into a routine. The Phantom Thieves decide on a target to reform, they infiltrate to figure out where in the target's Palace the treasure is located, they send a calling card which buys them real world notoriety as well as causing the treasure to manifest in a stealable form, and then steal the treasure so the person owns up to their crimes.

There's obviously a larger story going on, and there is a conspiracy involved that is happy to take the emergence of the Phantom Thieves as another pawn in its scheme, but the secrets are doled out so slowly that it doesn't really get going until the end of fifth Palace, when we see the black masked Persona-user kill someone for the first time and the Phantom Thieves take the fall.

This really needed to happen at the halfway point once all the setup was done, because it felt like the meat of the story was being held too far back. It's not that the earlier portion wasn't fun, because it was, but it was so long in getting to where it needed to be that my enthusiasm was waning in the final quarter even though I was finally getting the answers I wanted so much. That final leg was crazy good. It just needed to come sooner.

(From a gameplay perspective I might have been less critical about the pacing if the Palaces were shorter and Mementos did not exist. I'm fairly certain if the Palaces were half the size and the 67 floors of Mementos proper was removed, that would shave off a minimum of 30 hours. That's a lot of dungeon running.)

Once past the pacing issue, there's a lot to enjoy here.

The Persona games are a work of urban fantasy and typically tackle modern day concerns about apathy, alienation, and the effect of media on people's lives. Persona 5 is not any different, though initially it tackles it from the perspective of corruption.

The Phantom Thieves are "ordinary" high school students who, for one reason or another, are social outcasts. It could be because of a criminal record (in the protagonist's case), ethnic heritage (Ann's), poor social skills (Yuusuke's), etc. When they're pulled into the Metaverse, they recognize the unfairness of their situations and their decision to fight awakens their Personas. With the catlike Morgana as a guide to the Metaverse and how to use their powers, they become the Phantom Thieves to reform criminals and expose the corruption in society (becoming famous isn't a bad side effect either).

Persona 5 builds the methodology of the Phantom Thieves remarkable well as I've already written about, and lays out the possible ways their heists could go wrong early enough that it's less of a surprise when things finally do go belly up. It also makes the characters question whether or not what they are doing is right, though they typically talk themselves into it.

The thing is, the targets have no choice in the matter of their reformation. In fact, in most cases they don't want their hearts (treasures) stolen. Doing so causes their world to fall apart around them in an incredibly public fashion as they confess everything in front of as large an audience as possible while demanding that they be charged for their crimes.

Do they deserve it? Probably. Is it right? That's the harder question.

Ironically it's the traitor Akechi who voices the most reasonable argument against the Phantom Thieves. Regardless of their intentions, what they're doing is circumventing the law and administering justice on their own terms. Not only that, but going into the Palace is potentially dangerous to the target, since if their shadow is killed, they die in the real world as well.

I wish there had been a little more introspection on the part of the Phantom Thieves. While they don't have many options available to them (which is why they become the Phantom Thieves to begin with), they don't spend much time thinking about the morality of what they're doing. It does comes up, especially in the beginning, but pretty much drops off by the end, to the point where if they didn't destroy the Metaverse in order to defeat Yaldabaoth they probably would have continued being Phantom Thieves past the conclusion of the game.

Since the agreement between the team is that they only undertake an operation if all of them agree, it's a shame this wasn't exploited since it would have made for some interest teammate conflict if someone started to have second thoughts about their methods.

I feel like I'm mostly talking about bad things, even though I did enjoy the game, so there is one late game twist I want to discuss, because I think its execution was fabulous.

The Velvet Room has always been a safe haven in the Persona games. In fact, in more recent iterations, it even feels a world apart from the rest of the story since the protagonist is the only character who interacts with it and Philemon, Igor's master, no longer plays an active role in the series.

So when the protagonist landed in the Velvet Room for the first time, I had no reason to doubt the Igor I found in front of me. I was surprised that his voice had been recasted in the English version, but supposed that it had been done to match the Japanese recast, which similarly featured a deeper-voiced Igor. (Igor's original Japanese VA passed away after Persona 4.)

Igor's purpose is typically as a game mechanic. He fuses Personas for the player and provides some atmosphere regarding the protagonist's potential growth. Sometimes he alludes to events yet to come, but he's not an active player. Outside of the Persona fusion, he's very much on the sidelines. I did find it strange though that I could forge a Confidant link with him, seeing as he's less of a character than an idea.

In retrospect there are other clues that Persona 5's "Igor" is not who he seems. He does not fuse Personas like he normally does. Instead the Personas are "executed" by guillotines managed by the twin wardens Caroline and Justine. This initially seems like a thematic change due to the protagonist's Velvet Room looking like a prison (the Velvet Room takes on a different appearance depending on its visitor) and serves as an excellent way to hide that things are not business as usual.

Chances are "Igor" does not have the ability to fuse Personas at all, because the twist is that the Velvet Room has been taken over by another entity. I can't imagine that anyone saw it coming since it took advantage of a real world necessity (recasting Igor) and furthered covered it up with some clever misdirection in the game itself. Series newcomers would have been surprised regardless, but fooling the long time fans was well played indeed.

Sadly, Yaldabaoth himself is not a terribly interesting character, since as a supernatural entity he's more a force of nature than a complex personality. He masquerades as Igor for most of the game and is responsible for the protagonist's awakening as a Persona user, but it's more because he has a grand game in mind and he wanted to see which pawn (Goro Akechi or the protagonist) would win. And everything in the game stems from that.

It's not the shiniest bit of writing, but allows for a Seven Deadly Sins-themed boss fight at the end and some feel-good rallying around the Phantom Thieves as the rest of Tokyo cheers for them.

Really, the most appealing part of the later Persona games is the journey, the friends made along the way, and the stuff right up until the final boss. It's still too long for my tastes, but for the most part Persona 5 does this well and I'm looking forward to spending another bout of time with these characters when the anime comes out next year.